Secret practices, public threats: Colonial fears and Afro-Brazilian traditions in the 18th century

Nuno Marques Pereira, a Portuguese priest, wrote about his pilgrimage to Brazil in a book published in 1728. As he was staying in a slave owner’s farm, Pereira was shocked by the sounds of the calundu, an African-Brazilian rite that incorporated dances and prayers. Pereira found it unacceptable that his host would allow the slaves to perform such “idolatrous rites”, especially when one of the conditions to keeping slaves was that they had to be brought to the Catholic faith, “removing from them all their rites and gentile superstitions”.

In the original: “Também he certo, que por direito especial de huma Bulla do Summo Pontífice se permittio que elles fossem cativos, com o pretexto de serem trazidos à nossa Santa Fé Catholica, tirandose-lhes todos os ritos, e superstições Gentílicas, e ensinandose-lhes a doutrina Chritãa’ (p. 117).

Pereira was particularly concern about the music being played at the calundu, describing the drums as “such thunder that it seems like the Devil commanded them to play his triumph through the sound of these hellish instruments, to show how he is victorious in these lands” (p. 117-118). The priest told his host that the lack of punishment for idolatry would lead to their downfall, and the host agreed to gather the instruments, then built a great bonfire and burned them all.

Pereira’s pilgrimage book is one of the first literary descriptions of a calundu. The tradition, however, can be found throughout most of Colonial Brazil, as Laura de Mello e Souza has shown in her work O Diabo e a terra de Santa Cruz. Most calundus happened in secret, which exacerbated the colonial fear of the “demonic” powers at play during the rites. Discussing how “private” these practices could be is, therefore, very complex. The fact that slaves still could maintain such “private religion” was definitely perceived as a threat, as shown by Pereira’s account. However, the priest also showed us that at least some slave owners were aware of these practices and tended to turn a blind eye – to the despair of religious authorities like Pereira. But is there privacy when others are aware (yet deliberately not acknowledging) what is happening?

Can this be consider privacy?

The calundu served multiple functions for the Black community in this context, providing religious and health support to the participants. Commonly, the organizer of the calundu was also a healer, who used herbs, rituals, and prayers, with hybrid references from Indigenous, African, and European knowledge. As such, it is not surprising that Souza’s main sources to explore the historical nuances of the calundu came from Inquisitorial records: in an attempt to control these “powerful yet mysterious” practices, many of these healers were accused of witchcraft.

In his writing, Pereira described Black healers as inspired by the devil, which would explain why they were sought out to heal illnesses of demonic origins. For instance, he mentions that when a man engaged with a sinner woman, the man “begins to complain; and no doctor nor surgeon can discover the illness, because it is of a different nature, caught from a pot from hell. […] In the end, there is no cure for him, no remedy that can treat him. Then comes a devil’s emissary, and says to him that if he wants to have health, he should look for a Black healer (or rather, a sorcerer) […].

Compendio narrativo do peregrino da America, p. 125.

Growing up in Brazil, this idea of Black healers being the only ones being able to treat certain ailments (mostly believe to be of supernatural origins) was still passed onto me as a child. Coming from a small town of German immigrants in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, I remember stories of people who believed to have been bewitched having to travel to a different city to seek a Black healer to remove their curse.  We can still see how practices that had to be kept secret due to persecution and prejudice managed to survive within their own “private networks”, while also branching out and blending with the broader local context. At the same time, these prejudices that put the keepers of such knowledge under suspicion also remain very much present. Colonial ideas, practices of resistance, and knowledge exchanges are all intertwined in the ramifications of Latin American history.

To explore the different dimensions that privacy takes in the history of Latin America, the Centre for Privacy Studies is now launching a series of online seminars, called “Historical Notions of Privacy in Latin America”. Every last week of the month, we will gather to discuss a work-in-progress that deals with Latin American history in relation to privacy. The inaugural seminar will take place now on September 22, 2020. The event is open, and we welcome everybody to join! Feel free to register at the PRIVACY website.

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